The rate of anti-Semitic incidents in France is increasing, yet they are underreported and under-researched. That was one finding of a report on anti-Semitism and extremism in France released Jan. 7, a year after attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine and a Paris kosher supermarket killed 17.
The report, issued in Washington by Human Rights First, a U.S.-based advocacy organization, calls for the United States to work with France to combat anti-Semitism and extremism.
“Breaking the Cycle of Violence: Countering Antisemitism and Extremism in France” confirms earlier accounts that anti-Semitism is connected to the rise of the extreme right, the marginalization of immigrant and Muslim populations, and Islamic extremism.
It says the French government’s National Action Plan to Fight Racism and Antisemitism, launched in 2014, has fallen short “of the long-term political vision necessary to confront the problem’s root causes.”
According to the report, marginalization is a main cause of extremism and violence. The official response has led to an unexpected reaction.
“Government action to denounce and confront antisemitism paradoxically exacerbates it, by validating the narrative that Jews exert inordinate influence over the French political establishment,” it states.
A panel at the National Press Club discussed the report and its findings, released less than two months after a terrorist attacks in Paris killed 130 people.
Ilan Scialom, vice president of Coexister, a movement in France of advocates for tolerance and inclusion, said it is difficult for French activists to have discussions and build coalitions because no “neutral space” exists in French society.
Coexister follows three steps toward activism, he said.
The first is dialogue, in which participants come together with their various identities. This is unusual in France, where group identity doesn’t exist officially out of fear of “communitarianism.”
The second step is solidarity, moving from “living together to building something together,” the idea being that no one will want to destroy something they built.
The final step is educating and training people in high schools.
Scialom warned against those who see a replay of the 1930s in today’s French anti-Semitism.
“France is very different today. The majority of the Jewish community are Sephardic Jews. They have a different relationship to the Muslims,” he said. “This is not the pre-Holocaust. It helps if the U.S. community understands that.”
The report calls on the United States to work with France to combat anti-Semitism in France. Among its recommendations are for senior U.S. officials to continue to condemn anti-Semitic violence, but to “avoid fueling a ‘clash of civilizations’ narrative between Jewish and Muslim communities.”
Panelists said French activists could learn from the United States, which has well-developed interfaith networks and a history of coalition-building among minorities and interest groups.
But Michael German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, said the United States has a lot to learn about understanding and responding to extremism.
“There are two separate problems that need to be addressed separately: increasing anti-Semitism and violence,” said German, who in his career as a federal law enforcement officer, penetrated neo-Nazi groups.
“In neo-Nazi groups, people who commit violence were not the ideologues,” he said. Instead of focusing on the ideologues and ideology behind a movement, the violence itself should be treated as a criminal matter. “We are not having an honest dialogue about terrorism. … Instead we have a sensationalistic dialogue that just provokes fear.”
Panelist Floriane Hohenberg agreed. A contributing researcher and writer for Human Rights First, Hohenberg said that silencing extremists in France would mean “excluding the [far-right] National Front,” which would be “the exclusion of a large part of society.”
Instead, she said, “they have to be engaged” and their beliefs confronted.